This spring the US government issued an opinion about oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge saying there’s no reason to stop it. It’s a decision WWF-US saw coming but one that science tells us we cannot accept.
The Arctic Refuge has been a place undisturbed by development. The US government acknowledged the importance of the area along the Southern Beaufort Sea by declaring it a Wildlife Refuge decades ago. But in 2017 lawmakers approved opening the Coastal Plain of the Refuge to allow for oil and gas drilling.
WWF-US has been vocal in its opposition for a host of reasons, and there is one significant bit of logic even the government’s experts agree with—climate change makes the future of the region uncertain. Oil and gas development only compounds the problem.
Declining sea ice
Last year was the warmest on record in Alaska, and according to scientists, Arctic sea ice has been experiencing record lows this year as well.
Sea ice is essential habitat for polar bears throughout the Arctic—they use the ice to travel, hunt, find mates and den. But as ice melts due to climate change, more female bears from the Southern Beaufort Sea population are making their maternal dens on land instead of on ice. Today about one third of all female bears in this region make their dens along the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge.
Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears are already in a major decline, falling from 1,500 individuals to about 900 in just a few years during the early 2000s.
One of the justifications Fish and Wildlife gave for its failure to do a proper assessment of impacts of this oil and gas project on polar bears is uncertainty in how the bears will respond to climate change. WWF and scientists agree, and it’s reason enough to put the brakes on oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge.
Polar bear populations
We know that Southern Beaufort Sea polar bears have suffered recent declines due to loss of their sea ice habitat. Scientists warn even with strong climate action at a global scale polar bear populations will continue to decline over the next few decades. Loss of sea ice habitat is likely to cause nutritional stress to polar bears, result in lower birth and survival of cubs and young bears, and force greater numbers of bears onto land for longer periods, both to find food and to give birth. That makes the Arctic Refuge an even more important nursery habitat for bears. As their traditional denning habitat increasingly disappears, a refuge is precisely what they will need.
It’s not just polar bears in a perilous situation—all life in the Refuge is at risk.
Alaskan native communities in and around the refuge rely on the Porcupine Caribou Herd for subsistence needs. The herd of 200,000 animals migrates from Canada to the coastal plains of the refuge every year to birth their calves and seek necessary relief along the Beaufort Sea from otherwise inescapable hordes of mosquitoes. In fact, the government of Canada warned the US that the risk to this herd and the people who rely on it is “too high.” The risk comes from oil and gas infrastructure impacting migratory and calving grounds along the coast, leading to further declines in the population.
There is legislation in the US Congress right now that would protect polar bears and their habitat along the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Coastal Plain. WWF-US is calling on lawmakers to stand up for one of the polar bear’s last best chances to adapt to a changing climate and habitat.
Learn more about polar bears.
Survival of the fattest: Why the climate crisis is making it hard for polar bears to get enough calories
To survive, polar bears need two things: seals to eat, and a platform of sea ice from which to hunt them. Pregnant bears, in particular, must get very fat from hunting seals before they hibernate, as they may not eat for eight months: they rely on stored fat for the energy they need to produce and nurse cubs, meet their own needs and travel back to the ice in spring.
In October 2019, the Polar Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released a new assessment of polar bears. The findings reveal the most up-to-date information for polar bear populations.